May’s Delay Reveals a Government in Name Only

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It always seemed ludicrous for Theresa May to hold a vote she was set to lose by a large margin. And yet her decision to delay it brought not relief, but confusion and dismay. 

May was jeered almost as soon as she opened her mouth in the House of Commons to announce she would postpone the vote in order to ask European Union leaders to sweeten a pill British lawmakers don’t want to swallow. The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, berated her. Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is now under increasing pressure to call a motion of no confidence. The Institute of Directors, representing businesses, criticized “another extension of the frustration and uncertainty.” The pound slumped to the lowest level since April 2017.

Let’s reserve judgment for the time being on whether the Brexit roller-coaster just hit a sudden, jerky turn or is about to derail altogether, leaving Britain to exit the EU without a deal in place, or has stalled, leaving its passengers marooned in the air. The manner of the reversal itself says a lot about where we are.

The decision to delay — taken only hours after government ministers Stephen Barclay and Michael Gove had taken to the airwaves to say they were certain it was going ahead — was clearly born of desperation; the result of an endgame that has not at all gone according to plan. Presumably the ministers who so publicly promised the vote would go ahead were relaying what they thought was a true reflection of May’s plans. Politicians of Gove’s profile don’t go on national TV or radio saying something is 100 percent certain only to be proved totally wrong hours later. In all likelihood, May herself changed her mind at the last minute.

Perhaps she felt it was the only way she could wring last-minute concessions out of Brussels; but that never seemed likely, and the EU continues to insist it will not reopen negotiations on the most controversial part of her deal, the guarantee that keeps the Irish border open by indefinitely locking the U.K. into a customs union with the EU. She now plans to go back to Brussels on Thursday to ask for concessions. It is in Europe’s interest, too, that the deal survives and EU leaders may try to help out by adding reassurances without reopening the legally binding terms of the agreement. But whatever she receives from Brussels is likely to fall far short of the unilateral exit from the backstop, or time limit on it, that many Conservatives are seeking.

There are other reasons the prime minister may want to play for time. It’s possible that May is now reconsidering her opposition to a second referendum, something many in her own party and the opposition Labour Party are calling for. That would require settling on a format or question that would win agreement; a task only marginally less complicated than sorting out the backstop. Or she could be taking a step back to prepare for what seems like an inevitable vote of confidence, either coming from within her own party or the opposition. 

This is not how cohesive governments operate. May looks cornered on the chess board. She has some moves left, but they are limited and look desperate. Her best card, which she played Monday, remains the lack of an alternative plan or an alternative leader. That may not be enough. Whether or not the U.K. is pursuing Brexit in name only, as many Brexiters claim, it certainly has a government in name only. May will go to Brussels next, but where Brexit ultimately goes looks to be out of her hands.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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